Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Heaven & Hell in Venice

Venice in June wasn't my idea. My friend was going to be in the area for a class and wanted someone to join her for a couple of days in Venice, and I wanted something to do because my husband was going to be away at a conference. So, I planned to go...but I sort of dreaded it. I don't like heat, and I don't like crowds. Traveling to the hot south during peak travel months is something I would normally not plan to do.

Googling for info made it worse. Reports of Venice teeming with more tourists than residents, monster mosquitoes, stinky canals, obscenely expensive restaurants, and pickpockets seemed to constantly show up in my search results. After a couple of days of this, I abandoned Google and turned to a map of Venice I had in a book. Maps always make me feel positive about a place. Looking over it at Campo this and Campo that - I was in. I wanted to know this place - even if conditions weren't ideal.

The one-hour flight from Frankfurt was amazing. We crossed over the cloud-shrouded Alps, beautiful green valleys, and finally, had a perfect view of Venice in the evening light just before we landed. It was so incredible as to render me dumb and inspire brilliant Captain Obvious-style thoughts like, "Oh my God. VENICE IS REAL." Unfortunately, the tourist problem was also immediately real. From the plane you could clearly see massive cruise ships at port dwarfing even the church towers.

I met up with my friend and we had a lovely dinner at Ristoteca Oniga followed by gelato at Grom (both recommended by a friend) and a walk around. We remembered reading on Trip Advisor that the prices at Oniga were very reasonable, but they seemed pretty high to us. We just didn't know yet how it could be. Later in the trip I saw an ice cream joint advertising Spaghetti Eis for 10 Euro. We ended up defaulting to take-out pizza to keep the costs down.  Beware these though - at one, my friend ordered lasagna and it came still packaged in a frozen-food container.  They didn't even make an effort to pretend they'd made it. (My pizza from the same place was quite good.)

My first impression that evening was that Venice was a bit claustrophobia-inducing. I felt very hemmed in by the tiny alleys, some of which are only three paving stones across. The feeling passed the next day; maybe I just felt that way because it was dark. Later I couldn't get enough of narrow alleys, abandoned residential campos (squares), and quiet dead ends. They were heaven. Every time I found one, I fantasized about moving to Venice to live on one - heat, humidity, high prices, and tourists be damned.

But oh, the tourists. As one, I sometimes felt a little guilty at our collective overrunning of the island. We spent Sunday on the outlying islands of Torcello, Burano, and Murano in an attempt to get away from any extra weekend crowds, then hit the big stuff - namely, St. Mark's Square & Basilica - on Monday. We made sure to go very early to enjoy them in a bit of peace, so we arrived at the square around 8am. It wasn't bad - definitely a tourist attraction as there were some matching-shirt groups and plenty of cameras around - but not bothersome at all. Around noon we came back through the area and it was complete insanity. The calles were so full you couldn't even get through. It was hell. The bridges looked like they'd collapse under the weight of so many people, all vying for perfect photos of the Bridge of Sighs. The photos - so many churches banned them inside, and it annoyed me. Photos help jog my memory of a place. But after seeing this, I understood why, and it has nothing to do with the sacredness of the site. It has to do with everyone thinking they're a damn ace photographer. You'd never be able to move or a see a thing in St. Mark's if everyone had their giant lenses up 6 inches from every beautiful detail.

 While cooling off in an air-conditioned bookstore, I skimmed a small book called "Dear Tourist" written by a Venetian. The book blamed city leadership for letting so many cruise ships in, and declaring that they'd happily let in still more. It also cited studies showing that Venice is currently at or beyond tourist capacity. Another study indicated that Venice could withstand 100,000 tourists a day if only they were spread out evenly over the island. You can clearly see in my photos that this is not the case. There were silent abandoned corners everywhere. Everyone is at St. Mark's (and for a reason!), the Rialto (don't get the appeal there), and on the streets in between. I'm glad there were places to get away and enjoy the serenity which is part of what made Venice famous in the first place.

I've let a week go by since returning home, hoping that all my contradictory feelings about Venice would settle into something more solid, and that I would be able to come up with some kind of recommendation on how to go about visiting Venice. But, neither has happened. I liked it. Some of it I loved. Some of it was pretty sad. The expense can really ruin a good time - as can the bug bites (I got over 20, all overnight, and don't know if they were mosquitoes or bedbugs) and the oppressive humidity. I don't know what to think. But....I still kind of want to go again. There really is something about Venice.

Enjoy the photos.

Venezia Jun 12


  1. I loved your photos, especially of Burano.
    My one and only time in Venice was August, 1980. Seems not much has changed, as all I remember are crowds and more crowds.
    I'd love to go back, but first I'd have to become King to decree all cruise ships be towed to the mid-Atlantic and scuttled.

  2. Thanks, Ian!

    I think a lot of Venice residents would agree with you about the cruise ships, which have also been accused of creating wakes and undertows that damage the pilings under the buildings. Bad news.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. You provide good insight on what it is like in Venice.


  4. "Streets full of water. Plase advise." Someone said that, and it always underscores to me the incredible otherworldliness of the place. The fact that it exists at all is stunning. I just got back from Amsterdam and was amazed at how many canals -- and bridges -- exist there, yet with an entirely different more northern vibe.

  5. "Streets full of water. Plase advise." Someone said that, and it always underscores to me the incredible otherworldliness of the place. The fact that it exists at all is stunning. I just got back from Amsterdam and was amazed at how many canals -- and bridges -- exist there, yet with an entirely different more northern vibe.


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